Monday, February 15, 2010

Learn To Cook, Pt. 2: The Pasta Toss

Time for another installment of our monthly "Learn to Cook" series.  Last month, we talked about simple, "assembly only" dinners -- both sandwiches and salads.  This month, we're going to take another baby step forward and try pasta tosses.  Everyone can make a big bowl of pasta with jarred marinara sauce, right?  And that is certainly comforting and can be delicious.  But if a jar of marinara is the only treatment you ever give your pasta, then you are missing out on a world of possibilities.  You can break the red sauce rut by tossing your noodles with a variety of pantry/fridge staples.  Jarred roasted red bell peppers, pine nuts, capers, tuna, spinach, feta cheese, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives . . . There are lots of items living in your kitchen right now that are divine tossed in a bowl with some pasta. 

When you move beyond the basic pasta-and-marinara combo, you'll get two rewards.  First, you won't be bored.  Having just one taste experience for dinner -- let alone having that same dinner many times a month -- is boring, boring, boring.  But if you your noodles are tossed with other ingredients, then you get one bite of pasta followed by a bite of, say, feta cheese, then a bite of kalamata olives, then artichoke hearts . . . you get the picture.  Lots of tastes in one plate, which is much more exciting and satisfying.  So you'll have more variety in any given meal -- but you'll also have more variety over time, as you can change up your ingredients and achieve completely new pasta dishes every time.

The second reward is that you are very likely to eat less.  Most people, when they have just one taste experience (big bowl of red sauce) for dinner, tend to go for volume in order to achieve satisfaction.  (How many times have you reached for another slice of pizza even though you were already rather full, because you just didn't feel satisfied yet?)  But if you have lots of flavors in a meal, you can actually eat less but walk away from the table feeling much more satisfied.  After a dinner of pasta-with-marinara, many people end up feeling stuffed.  After a pasta toss with lots of flavors, you are more likely to feel full and satiated -- but not unpleasantly stuffed. 

I'll give you one complete pasta toss recipe and then a few different ideas for combinations that my family enjoys.  Let me know how your experiments go!  One last note:  I often like to serve pasta tosses as meatless meals, but if your family eats meat every night, you could always add bits of leftover chicken, turkey, sausage or whatever you've got. 

Angel Hair with Herbed Goat Cheese and Tomatoes
Source: adapted from Cooking Light magazine
Time:  about 15 mins. (after water boils)
  • 1 package fresh angel hair pasta (from refrigerated section)
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes (mix of heirloom types is nice)
  • 3 oz. herb-flavored goat cheese
  • 1 TBSP olive oil + more for drizzling
  • 1-2 cloves garlic (or 1-2 tsp bottled, minced garlic)
  • salt and pepper
  • fresh basil
  • about 3/4 c chicken broth
  1. Bring some water to a boil and then cook your angel hair according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise.  Mince the garlic. Cut the goat cheese into chunks. Cut the basil leaves into thin strips.
  3. Heat the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Add garlic and saute for about 30 seconds.  Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes start to soften up a bit (about 2 mins.)  Add the chicken broth and cook another minute or so. 
  4. Meanwhile, when the pasta is done, drain it and either return it to the pot or put it in a large serving bowl.  Add the goat cheese, basil, a little salt, and a lot of pepper on top and then gently toss it together just a bit.  Then add the tomato mixture and toss more thoroughly.  I like to drizzle individual servings with some extra olive oil and basil, then.  Taste and add more salt, pepper, oil, or chicken broth, if needed.
Other Pasta Toss Ideas:

Italian Peppers and Sausage:  Saute some Italian sausage (either links -- whole or cut up -- or bulk sausage, hot or mild) in some oilive oil.  Meanwhile, slice an onion and some bell peppers.  Add the veggies to the pan.  Toss with penne and some more olive oil -- and maybe a splash of balsamic or red wine vinegar.  (You could also add a can of diced tomatoes, but then let it cook all together a bit -- about 10 mins.)  Salt, pepper, and cheeses (mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, romano) as you please.  I've also used this general idea to use up leftover pasta-with-marinara sauce.  For that meal, I make the sausage and onion/peppers as described, then mix it with the leftover pasta, cover with mozzarella, and bake until warmed through and the cheese is melted.

Greek Pasta:  Chop some sundried tomatoes (the jarred kind packed in oil) and toss them in a big bowl.  Add some kalamata olives, feta, garlic, parsley, and penne or spaghetti.  Toss with some olive oil and maybe a splash of vinegar.  Other possible add-ins:  onions (cooked for a bit or not), artichoke hearts, capers.  If you want to get fancy, saute some scallops with some chopped onion and garlic in olive oil and a splash of wine.  (Adapted from Desperation Dinners.)

Ricotta Pasta:  Put some ricotta cheese and parmesan or romano in a big bowl.  Add some chopped parsley.  Cook an onion in some olive oil and then add a bit of garlic and some halved cherry tomatoes.  When it's all soft, toss it with penne.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Other add-ins:  bacon, peas, sausage, zucchini, cooked spinach.  Ricotta is also great added to leftover pasta-and-marinara and baked (as discussed above). 

Tortellini With Sausage:  For a change of pace, use a filled pasta -- like tortellini or ravioli -- in a pasta toss.  My favorite is from adapted from Desperation Dinners.  Brown some bulk Italian pasta with a chopped onion.  Add a little garlic.  Chop some jarred, sun-dried tomatoes and them to the skillet, along with a handful of pine nuts.  (If it starts to get dry, add a splash or water.)  Toss with tortellini and serve with lots of romano or parmesan.

Pasta Pomodoro:  This is a classic that never seems to get tired -- but it is only great during the summer, in peak tomato season.  Chop some amazing, perfect tomatoes (I love the way a bunch of different colored heirlooms look and taste)  and add them, with their juice, to a big bowl.  Chop some garlic and add it, too.  Chop some basil and stir it in.  Add a LOT of oil -- start with at least a 1/4 c if you're making the standard 4 servings.  Toss with angel hair.  Taste to see if it needs salt, pepper, or more oil or basil.  Serve with lots of romano or pamesan. 

Tuna Toss:  We call this "Al Fresco" pasta in our house, as it is almost always served outside.  It is adapted from Desperation Dinners.  Again, wait til summer, when the tomatoes make this divine.  Chop up a bunch of tomatoes and add to a bowl with their juice.  Chop a bunch of parsley and add it.  Chop and add a few cloves of garlic.  Add a handful of kalamata olives.  Add a few spoonfuls of capers.  Add some tuna (canned or in the pouch, as you please).  Add a few handfuls of romano or parmesan.  Drizzle with a lot of olive oil.  Toss with fusilli.  Add salt, pepper, and more oil, to taste.

Spinach and Prosciutto Toss:  While you're boiling your noodles, heat some olive oil in a skillet and some minced garlic and a big punch of red pepper flakes.  Take a few ladles of water out of the pasta pot and add it to the skillet.  Put a bag of baby spinach in your colander.  When your spaghetti is done, drain it over the spinach -- this will cook the spinach.  Add the noodles and spinach to the skillet.  Add some sliced prosciutto, the juice of a lemon, salt, and lots of pepper, and romano or parmesan.  (Adapted from Rachel Ray's 2, 4, 6, 8 and Cooking Light magazine.)

Satay Noodles:  Here's a killer one to move your noodles away from Mediterrean flavors. This is (barely) adapted from Rachel Ray's 2, 4, 6, 8.  Saute some fresh ginger, garlic, and a big pinch of red pepper flakes in either canola or peanut oil.  After about 2 mins., take a ladle of the water out of the pasta pot and about a cup of chicken broth.  Add about 1/3 cup of soy sauce (or tamari, if you have it).  Turn the heat to high and let it bubble for a minute or two.  Turn off the heat and add 1/2 cup of smooth, all-natural peanut butter (if you eat the processed, Jiff-type of P.B., that will work).  Whisk to combine.  If it gets too thick, splash a little more of the pasta water in.  Squeeze two limes into the sauce and then toss with the hot noodles.  (Spaghetti or another long, thick noodle works best here.)  This is good just like this, but if you have some roasted peanuts and/or cilantro to put on top, you will be very, very happy. 


  1. I have an immense desire now for peanut noodles. I have all the ingredients you mentioned, too! mmmm... with cilantro and a splash of lime they are so amazingly delish!

    great post, Megan! so many ideas even this Italian never thought of before!

  2. Beautifully written and deliciously tempting. This blog is outstanding. Great read, I'm hungry. Keri (a.k.a. Sam)